On the day last June when Bordeaux second growth Château Cos d’Estournel announced the opening price for its 2009 vintage of €150 a bottle, I visited a wine producer less than 10 miles north-west of this famous St-Estèphe property. Adrien Tramier, owner of the much more modest Château St-Saturnin, had not yet decided on the price of his 2009. This was hardly surprising since, instead of being plugged into the rapacious rhythms of the Bordeaux place (merchants’ wine market), he sells when he feels like it. His average price per bottle from the cellars is under €10 and he was sure that he would not be asking more than €15 even for the most sought-after vintage ever, the 2009.
Tramier is unusual in so many ways that it is hard to decide in which order to list them. He uses no oak from choice. He still has some wine in tank from the first year he was proud of. That year was 1975 – yes, the village of Bégadan in the northern Médoc harbours some 35-year-old wine in bulk, in extremely appetising condition. In fact I’d say that Château St-Saturnin 1975 is much fruitier, more interesting and delicious than most of the far more high-flown 1975 red bordeaux I have tasted in recent years.
It perhaps goes without saying that Tramier is extremely idiosyncratic. His long-suffering oenologist partner Catherine rolled her eyes when he claimed never to be stressed and sighed, “It’s very demanding to work his long hours. He may suddenly decide to do some winemaking operation at 11pm.” He admits that he sleeps for only four or so hours a night, restlessly essaying new techniques and improvisations. “I can’t help always looking for something different. I’ve done it ever since I was a child,” he told me, eyes sparkling above his Father Christmas white beard. Certainly I cannot remember meeting another Bordeaux wine producer who received me in an open black silk shirt and carefully pressed jeans, nor one who wandered off in the opposite direction when I arrived at what he calls “my modest farm”.
His property in the under-populated northern Médoc looks more like a hillbilly encampment than a conventional wine château. There are breeze-block sheds, cylindrical tanks on their sides rusting at one end, larger upright steel tanks in the open air, casually jacketed with what looks like silver foil blankets. But there are certainly precedents for excellent wine emerging from such unsophisticated settings. Sean Thackrey’s California wines and Château Rayas in Châteauneuf-du-Pape spring immediately to mind.
Tramier landed in Marseille from Algeria in 1964 and went initially to study in Montpellier where his sister lived. He came to Bordeaux to look at a possible little wine property in the far east of the Entre-Deux-Mers region that a fellow pied noir, a lawyer, had found for him, but threw dice for it with another potential buyer and lost. Further pied noir contacts found him three hectares (ha) of vines in Bégadan (he now has 37ha around this village and the next), which he worked half and half with the previous owner to begin with. By 1975 he had established his very particular way of working but, he added wistfully, “I’ll never be integrated here. I’d like to return to Algeria one day, and I wouldn’t view it through the eyes of today but with all my childhood memories. I’m ill at ease here.”
I suspect he’d be ill at ease wherever he was. Tramier seems determined to question the status quo and is one of those rare wine producers who really does seem to be making wine for himself rather than for the market or the wine critics. Although he is constantly fiddling with it, his basic recipe is to grow the grapes – mainly old, small-berried Merlot with about 35 per cent Cabernet Sauvignon and 5 per cent Cabernet Franc, predictably the reverse of the usual proportions in the Médoc. For the past 15 years he has averaged only three sprayings a year in the vineyard, a record low for the damp climate of Bordeaux. And while for most of his neighbours the harvest is usually over by the end of September, he rarely picks (by machine; he had one of the first back in 1980) before the end of October. He somehow manages however to keep these extremely ripe grapes completely healthy, presumably helped by very low average yields of about 25 hectolitres per hectare. He then keeps the fermenting juice on the skins for months rather than days or weeks, exposing the young wine outside to the cold of winter and the warmth of summer. Last June he had only just taken his spicy 2009 off the skins.
As you may imagine, his wines taste very unlike the rather austere, light-bodied norm for the northern Médoc – the flavours are all bumptious, frank, tail-wagging fruit without any oak make-up. This has caused a certain amount of friction with the local wine authorities who have apparently told him, “Monsieur Tramier, there are 900 growers here. There is only one that disturbs us: you. Your wine is good but it does not belong in the Médoc.” It caused quite a stir locally when his 2005 won a gold medal.
I asked Tramier how he decides when to bottle. He frowned. “Some vintages I keep, others I bottle. There are no rules here.” The director of the official laboratory in Pauillac, who introduced me to Tramier, told me later, “He sells only when he needs the money. Then he tends to contact me, always in a hurry: ‘Can I meet you by the roadside somewhere so you can analyse my samples and then I can start bottling?’”
I see that currently his 2001 vintage is being sold at Auchan supermarkets in France, so there is clearly some commercial process involved, but when I asked how he sells his wine, I was told, “Money is not my aim. Harvests I like, money not so much. Fric? I live very modestly. When you arrive in France with nothing, you learn to do that. I don’t lack anything, which is why I allow myself these fantasies of making wine.”
Bordeaux is too often seen as exclusively a region of grand wine, high prices and predictable people, but there are vivid exceptions too.
My wine of the week: Charles Smith Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, Columbia Valley
The UK’s biggest wine company, Laithwaites, is playing an increasingly important role in the US. One of the benefits for its UK customers is that the company’s range of American wines has improved considerably. It is currently offering what must be the UK’s best-value bottle from Washington state (most are £20-plus).
Eastern Washington’s semi-desert conditions offer rain-free summers that result in particularly healthy grapes. The only real viticultural hazard is the fiendishly cold winters, which threaten varieties such as Merlot.
But Washington and the hard-wooded Cabernet Sauvignon seem a match made in heaven. Some of the finest varietal Cabernets I have tasted have been from the likes of DeLille, Leonetti, Quilceda Creek and Woodward Canyon, the stars of the old guard in Washington state. But Charles Smith belongs to the next generation. He started his K Vintners label in 2000 (K for ‘K Syrah’, we are told) but is now bottling a proportion of his wine under his own name.
To find a wine made by Smith at under £10 is rather exciting – and all the more because 96 per cent of the grapes were grown on the Wahluke Slope, one of the most northerly Washington AVAs (American Viticultural Area). The blend of the wine, I am told, is 89.2 per cent Cabernet Sauvignon, 7.1 per cent Syrah, 3.6 per cent Merlot, 1 per cent Sangiovese. You can taste the sunshine, with a hint of rhubarb and ripe black fruit flavours. There are some tannins in evidence but I would drink this over the next year or two.
Where to buy
From £9.99 at www.laithwaites.co.uk
For more wine news and tasting notes go to jancisrobinson.com